By: Thoughts of a Random Citizen
Enjoy an amazing interview that I had with Dr. Rich Blundell. Rich, thank you so much for coming on the show. I'm very excited to talk about something I don't know a whole lot about. I think you're actually the first scientist to ever come on the show so I'm also very excited about that. Chat about your travels, something that I like to focus on as well. For those people out there who are like, "Entrepreneurship, what? How are we talking to a scientist or why are we talking to a scientist?" Well, first off entrepreneurship is a really vast category. You're going through it yourself on your end. It's such a big responsibility that constantly involves upgrading and changing and that's why I like to talk about a lot of different things on this show.
You never know what opportunities are coming around the corner regarding investing. If you find someone who knows a bunch about something you know nothing about, it's probably good to have a conversation with them to benefit not only you but your many employees that look up to you and follow you. To be an entrepreneur, you always have to be wanting to learn and talk with people who can help you grow. That is why I'm so excited to have you on this show because our pre-call last week that we had that was supposed to last about 15 minutes, I think lasted like two and a half hours. You've definitely taught me a lot already and I'm hoping that's something that the listeners are excited to hear about, especially this high-level discussion that we're going to have. Thank you so much, Rich, and welcome.
Sure. Thanks. One thing, just to pick up on that entrepreneurial thing you're talking about, I'm actually a big fan of that show Shark Tank, I don't know if you've ever watched that, which is all about entrepreneurialism. When I watch it, I'm just sort of blown away at how much ecological intelligence that I see going on in the exchanges and in the ideas. I'm an ecologist and so it's just fascinating that I see so many ecological dynamics happening in that space that knowing ecological intelligence as an entrepreneur is a way of sort of ushering in this new kind of entrepreneurialism.
It's not like old-school game A entrepreneurialism, it's more like what the future of entrepreneurialism is going to be. Having some kind of insight or understanding of ecological principles is essential, I think, to doing real prosperity building. I don't know, I think it's intensely relevant to entrepreneurialism.
I completely agree. For those out there who might not know what ecology is, and we've just dropped that already a bunch of times, can you kind of just walk us through the basics of what ecology is for those who might not know.
Well, fundamentally, ecology is the scientific study of relationships. That's all it is. We think about ecology in terms of it's the relationship between this insect and this plant or things that are going on in natural habitats and things like that. Actually, the principles of ecology, which are derived from observing relationships in nature, apply to all relationships. That includes social relationships, political relationships, economic relationships, all human relationships actually operate and unfold according to ecological dynamics.
Yes, it is like the study of nature and birds and all of that hippy stuff but it's actually-- What we're really talking about in ecology are universal principles, universal dynamics that are applied across the whole spectrum of reality. Yes, there's a way to sort of compartmentalize ecology as this scientific study of animals and things like that and ecosystems, but it's also about all systems and that's the way I've sort of tended toward this more universal understanding of ecological principles. When I talk about ecology, I'm actually talking about both. Ecology at the level of sort of what we think of as nature, but also ecology at the level of human ecosystems, social ecosystems, economic.
By the way, just while we're at it, the term eco as in economy and the term eco, as in ecology, they're both based on this root word eco. Economy and ecology actually share a root word, which is the ancient Greek word, oikos, which meant home. I guess it shouldn't then be a surprise that a deep ecologist or a universal ecologist can see the connections between economic systems and ecological systems. That's a big part of what Oika, the group that I sort of founded, it's a big part of what Oika is trying to do is to recouple those ideas of economy and ecology in a mutually beneficial relationship between those two. I don't want to get too far off, but that's just to highlight that ecological principles, ecological dynamics extend across all of the dimensions of life.
We're going absolutely dive into what you've founded in Oika because it's really interesting and that's one of the main reasons I wanted to have you on the show. Before we do that, you have quite an interesting background and life that I want to highlight, especially for those who are really interested in the travel aspect of life. Can you walk us through what happened and what got you from being a professional fisherman to a scientist traveling in the world? It's just a crazy background. Then also highlight some of the most beautiful places maybe you can suggest, or that really changed your life that you've seen around the world.
Sure. I think in order to do that, I have to go back a little bit further than normal into childhood. What I've had to reluctantly accept about my temperament is that I'm very sensitive. When I was a kid, I was really sensitive. When you're a kid, you don't really know who you are in relation to the world. I slowly began to realize that I was a deeply sensitive kid, just very tuned in and in a dreamy kind of way. At the surface, it would look like I was checked out, but I was actually checked in. Checked into all these things that are going on around me and grew up essentially given free rein to explore.
My parents, they didn't do it out of neglect but they just left me to go and explore and just be out all the time in nature, getting beat up and bruised and scraped. Those two things; being deeply sensitive and also having the freedom to be out there were just that's the story of my childhood. That eventually evolved into a career as a commercial fisherman, because I had spent all my time instead of going to school, I was out on the bay, in the woods, in the swamps, that kind of thing. Became a commercial fisherman because frankly, those were really my only options at that point, because I had just bailed on school.
One day out there after having graduated from inland fisheries like lobster and small finfish out to this bluefin tuna fishery that's off the coast of New England. I used to take this little 17-foot boat way out to this place called Stellwagen Bank and go for tuna. It turns out that the childhood that I had had set me up to be a really good tuna fisherman because all that sensitivity and all that sort of paying attention to the little nuances of nature turned out to be really good skills to find fish and so I did. It's a long story, but also a short story because the first fish that I caught was this 800-pound bluefin tuna.
I know. After going through the whole process of getting the thing on board-- I had a small crew with me. We rushed back to the dock to sell it, cut off its fins, bled it out, do all these things that you do to preserve a tuna. By the time I was hooking this fish up to get it into the freezer truck that was waiting at the dock, it had been sitting down in the gunnel, the corner of the boat the whole time. I hadn't really paid any attention to it but then as I was moving it to get it ready to get lifted up, I realized it was still alive and it was looking at me and I was looking at it.
Then suddenly the whole kind of world just sort of dropped around me and I watched this tuna die. When it died, it went through this process of losing all of this color, all the iridescence that it had, and the life that was in its eye just drained away. I know this sounds weird, but in that moment, it felt that tuna was trying to communicate something to me.
It was such a powerful experience because just prior to that moment, standing on that boat with all my buddies and they're all patting me on the back, congratulating, oh, we're going to make so much money, you did this Rich, you did this. Then when it died, all of that attribution to me as the one who got it suddenly flipped, I became the one responsible for killing it. I became the one responsible for this act.
It was just a moment that changed me. Suddenly, I became really interested in learning how that could happen. Then this is what really ignited in me this desire to learn. I had already been through most of high school. In fact, I had such a bad attendance record that they kept me back as a senior in high school and so it was just terrible. It was Ds and Fs straight through. Was not interested in learning at all in that environment. Once the tuna thing happened, suddenly I had an internal motivation to learn and it was insatiable.
I wanted to understand how could this tuna communicate something so profound. Again, it didn't speak English, it wasn't exchanging verbal cues or anything like that, but somehow that tuna and that moment was asking me to do something, was asking me to remember something and I needed to understand what that was. That's what launched me on my whole academic career which ended up in a PhD. That moment flipped which gives me a real appreciation for how our educational system fails certain kinds of learners. I was a failed student, but the moment it became an internal motivation to learn, all my energies went toward it and I focused on it.
The point of that whole adventure through the academic meat grinder was to understand how that kind of communication could happen. By the end of it all, like 30 years later, I think I figured that out. I think I did figure out how that kind of communication can happen. What I also realized was that how the communication happens is less important than what gets communicated.
Yes, and that's the final, not final but that's the later part was to figure out not just how it was communicated but what's the meaning of what was communicated, and that took another 10, 15 years. That's what Oika is all about. It's about taking what was communicated seriously.
That's such an incredible story and really cool. I feel like it's something that a lot of people can actually relate to as well if they've been in a similar scenario and they're open to what happened with you. That gives me a bunch more questions that I want to ask, but first, where are just if you can mention, I know that I was watching a few videos that you had done traveling, like Africa I think I saw some. Were those done, all of your travels, through your learning and your schooling? How was all that set up because it looks amazing fun but can you elaborate on that a bit?
Sure. Well I decided to go into science and it turned out, in the beginning, to be geology because that's just was the easiest one to get into, but yes, all of those travels, and I've been pretty much all over the world, I figured out ways of integrating that travel into the actual academic program. It's convenient that scientists, especially ecologists, wildlife biologists, and geologists have to travel the world, have to go out into the field and that became the opportunity. I could piggyback all this travel on actual scientific research and teaching.
I did a lot of teaching about wildlife in East Africa, so I lived in East Africa to do that, and also just the Marine biological parts that gave me the opportunity to hop on these old schooners that were out doing ecological research and I was out in the middle of the ocean doing research, and a lot of other places too like tropical forests in Central America, mountain regions in South America, I ended up going to Australia to finish all of this and all over Europe. All of that stuff.
All of that was orchestrated as a big sort of I'm going to use this educational opportunity to explore in the world and that worked too. It's a great way to have an excuse to go and learn about places. You have to be able to tolerate the uncertainty of it and design these expeditions. In the end, it all worked out and brought me around the world lots of places.
To be able to have that perspective as well and see all these civilizations and how different everything is. I know in the tiny amount compared to you, travels that I've done, it's really opened my perspective, but you're studying that like you're studying ecology, so did that help? I mean, obviously, it helped but how much did that impact not only the perspective side of things but that being what you did day in and day out? Did you notice a change internally or not specifically because of the travels?
I definitely do looking back. If I had not had all that exposure to all those different cultures and habitats and animals and things, then I wouldn't be able to say what I say today, I wouldn't know what I know today. My trajectory through all of those different disciplines of so science, whether that was geology, or biology, or chemistry, or astronomy, or anthropology, or sociology, whatever, that's not a very conventional path. Most scientists will enter a single field, a single discipline, and hyper-specialize on that. There was plenty of pressure if I need to do that like to say why are you going to go do Marine biology when you're studying paleontology? It's not an easy thing to do and so my route through all of those different disciplines was not typical.
However, the fact that I did go through all of those different domains of my knowledge, I think gave me access to these other insights that aren't available to people who specialize. You start to see how all of these things are connected. How the geology actually led to biology. In other words, we wouldn't have biological systems, if it weren't for geological processes that were going on in the early Earth. Somebody who only studies geology or only studies biology is never going to make that connection, but that same connection also extends from biology into society, into the social systems that we live by. There are biological impulses that we carry into sociological systems.
Economies and things like that and politics, they've all got these roots that extend all the way back down through all these different sciences, but most scientists never make those connections. That's part of the message too is that we need to take a more holistic approach to understanding the world as opposed to deeply reductionist as scientists do.
I agree. Moving over from that broad background and how you studied all that and how you've traveled the world and searched to understand what that day meant to you, can you tie into what exactly you are spending your times doing today with and how Oika ties into all of that. Obviously, we're going to have to break this down a bit because this is such a I guess I don't want to say complex- but I think it's a high-level conversation.
It's expansive is what it is. First, let me just say what it was the tuna I think, what the meaning of that was, was that moment with the tuna was about remembering all of that sensitivity as a child instilled in me. The fact that I was sensitive and the fact that I was down there in the dirt, in the mud, in the water, what the tuna was saying was, Rich, when you were a kid, all of this stuff was full of wonder and it was everything was alive. Everything was alive. The world was animate.
Then I got to a point where I became am a commercial fisherman. It was that act of becoming commercial, it was like I was betraying all of that history. I was betraying all the friendships that I had made with places and creatures, and things like that. The tuna was saying, Rich, take a moment to reflect on who you were and what you're forfeiting by becoming- by going commercial.
By killing me, this tuna, by killing, again, it didn't say this in English but this is what it means, this is what it meant. What it meant was by doing that, you're going to forfeit that child's experience of the world. Just don't do that is what it was-- That's what it took me that entire academic career to figure out. Don't sacrifice that child's wonder, and try to keep it alive while still being an adult.
This I think helps answer what it is I'm doing today. What I'm doing today is taking my understanding of the whole narrative of science, in other words, cosmic evolution, how the cosmos has evolved over time to today, to this present moment, and helping people see that so that they can see how their lives fit in that grand narrative of science. Not how it fits in any particular bit of scientific knowledge, but how our lives weave into this huge cosmic arc of nature. The best way that I've been able to figure out, the most traction that I've been able to get in doing that work which is to show this to people is through artists.
As somebody who went through the scientific academic treadmill, that whole trajectory, I was never asked to engage with the arts. I was never asked to take an Art History course or never understand art philosophy or any of that, but just in the last few years, I've discovered that artists are this incredible well, this incredible resource of that same sensitivity that I had as a kid, but they also are intensely creative, intensely aware and motivated to create, and so like, there's this energy that is in the artistic community that I've found deep resonance with.
Just like I hadn't been asked to do anything in the arts as a scientist, most artists have never been asked to engage meaningfully with the science. There's this really nice dovetail, there's this really nice synergy and there's a lot of energy there, and so lately I've been mostly working with artists to explore and communicate how humans can engage with this cosmic narrative in meaningful ways because they are meaningful.
When you actually feel the entire history of the universe within you, because it is, it's a 13.8 billion-year story, so I can't do the whole, I can't do it right now, but if you can glimpse and if you can capture emotional glimpses, glimpses that you can feel, it changes the whole world. You suddenly realize that you are immersed in this matrix of relationships and you belong in there.
The world, isn't just something out there that you're in competition with or that you need to fire yourself at. It's actually that you and the world are in an alliance, that you are collaborating on creating life and the future and all that. In working with artists, I've really had to get this opportunity to clarify that. I've been learning a lot from artists and I can see what I'm teaching them find a home in them which is just really cool. I don't know if this answers your question about what I'm up to now.
Yes, it does, and we'll get into what you're expanding into with the art, but I still wanted to focus on the Oika and how the power of this communication aspect that people might not fully understand from the conversation that we've had up to this point but for that example of the fish being able to communicate what it did communicate with you.
You had a life being a commercial fisherman which nothing wrong with that at all, but now that one moment of communication has led you to this path of a PhD world traveler scientist. This will just dive in and if you don't want to get into this rabbit hole, please stop me now, but that cell membrane and that how you can take and receive, and there's that communicative aspect of the relationship in that at regard.
Sure. I'm only going to be taking, I just want to emphasize that I'm only looking at one tiny little domain of science here, and that is molecular biology, but remember, molecular biology is just one tiny little sliver of all the sciences, astrophysics and chemistry, and geology and there's so many different sciences. Let's just talk about how the science of molecular biology reveals how that communication with the tuna can happen.
If you look at the history, the evolutionary history of life that happened on this planet 3.8 billion years ago, not long after the Earth was formed, which was a little over 4.6 billion years ago, but not long after Earth was formed, there was no life, there was nothing alive on this planet. but given the right circumstances, given the right chance and tons of time for iterations to happen, what will happen is that, and we know it happens because it happened here, that certain molecular structures, things that aren't alive will come together in a certain way.
In the case of our biology, it's a phospholipid bilayer, it's just this little bundle of fatty molecules that arrange themselves in a certain way to create an internal space and an external space. It's like a oily film that creates a sphere. Now there's an inside of the sphere and an outside of the sphere. Anything that gets trapped inside of the sphere now can have its own little ecosystem. There's this own little internal ecosystem inside this thing that's not alive, but given enough time, and I say this, we don't have the exact mechanism for this to happen, but we have several plausible ways to consider how this might have happened on the early Earth.
The point is life evolves out of that system. It's not that life suddenly comes into existence. It's more that there's this gradient between n